Vernon K. and Evan R. Gill
My grandfather Vernon K. Gill (above right) and his twin brother Evan R. (left) were born in Brighton in 1892. They emigrated from England separately but, by August, 1914, were together in Regina.
When war was declared, I’m told, they were the second and third to enlist here, and were part of the 1st Canadian Expeditionary Force to cross to England. They trained in the artillery and went into action for the first time in March, 1915, at the Second Battle of Ypres.
Evan was wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, recuperated in England and went to officers’ training school. Four days after returning to the front in 1918, he was seriously wounded.
Vernon fought up to and including Vimy, but in May, 1917, fell off a lorry transport and was run over by the following vehicle. This injury ended his fighting war. He, too, recuperated in England, and eventually returned to Regina, where he lived until his death in 1970.
— Evan Quick, Regina
His letters live on
Leo B. Le Boutillier
My great-uncle, Leo B. Le Boutillier, enlisted with the 24th Battalion (Victoria Rifles) as a private in Montreal on Nov. 3, 1914, and sailed for Europe on May 11, 1915, training at Camp Sandling near Folkstone.
His letters show how he grew from a youth hungry for adventure into a battle-hardened old man of 24. In early 1916, he volunteered to become a scout, which meant the hazardous duty of performing reconnaissance missions in no man’s land.
When his battalion moved to the Ypres sector and experienced its first heavy fighting, Leo’s letters took on a darker tone – he refers to being “still safe and sound” and describes how a unit with friends from home was “badly cut up.”
After the Battle of the Somme, he was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for “exceptional gallantry.” According to military records, he scouted under “very heavy fire,” rescued a wounded man and supplied his comrades with ammunition and Mills bombs [hand grenades invented a year earlier].
Leo’s last letter is dated March 23, 1917. On April 9, as he and his fellow scouts led the 24th Battalion to jumping-off points for the battle of Vimy Ridge, he was picked off by a sniper. He hung on in hospital for a little over a week.
This happened long before I was born, but I find it sad that he lies far from home in a windswept cemetery near the English Channel. His letters serve as his memorial.
— Steven Le Boutillier, Richmond Hill, Ont.
Lousy sense of humour
John Cannon Stothers
My great uncle, John Cannon Stothers (above left), signed up in the summer of 1916, as did his younger brother Carman (right).
They joined the 170th Battalion (Mississauga Horse) and went overseas that October on the Mauretania. By December, Carman was in France with the 75th Battalion and was at Vimy Ridge in April, 1917.
Wounded in a trench raid in June, he returned to Canada in December to recover from his wounds, and didn’t return to the front.
John remained in England as a musketry instructor with a reserve battalion, and eventually went to France in November, 1917. He was transferred to the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders), was gassed during the German attacks of March, 1918, and was part of the final 100-day push from August to the war’s end in November. He stayed with the 48th Highlanders, and was part of the Army of Occupation until May, 1919.
John Cannon was a teacher before the war, and a bit older than most at 28. His letters are very descriptive and humorous, even in the worst of conditions. Here are some samples:
“We pulled off a raid and captured a prisoner and a machine gun, besides inflicting heavy loss on the enemy. I was not on the raiding party as I’m making it a rule not to volunteer for anything, and I don’t believe in the value of such a minor operation.”
“I’m continually learning how lousy a fellow can get, altho’ it’s surprising how well I have managed to keep from being overcome by them. They say you are pretty lousy when they’re on your shoestrings, or get in your wristwatch.
“I have seen a fellow pick them off his handkerchief, and I have it on good authority that a Frenchwoman would not accept a franc bill in payment for something until the soldier who tendered it picked the crumbs off it. I have seen fellows crumbing up, and the insides of their shirts would frighten you.
“I wish Huber [naturalist François Huber, 1750-1831] had made a study of these insects, as he did of ants, but I hope the treatise upon “crumbs” would not be so imposing as Ants and their Slaves.”
— Steven Stothers, Winnipeg
From ‘suicide club’ to singer
John Carl Bunting
John Carl Bunting, my dad, was born near Arthur, Ont., and enlisted in October, 1915 (adding a couple of years to his age so he’d be over 18). Overseas he was chosen for the Canadian Machine Gun Corps, an elite unit that was all-volunteer and always vulnerable – an enemy target as soon as they opened fire, they were called the “suicide club” for good reason.
Dad was wounded on three occasions and twice had all eight members of his crew killed or wounded. While being treated for his third wound, he was approached by an officer looking for performers. Dad said he could sing, a bit, and ended up with the Emma Gees – the CMGC’s entertainment troupe – becoming its tenor soloist and master of ceremonies. In the photo, that’s him in a suit, sitting on the left.
After the war, he stayed an extra year as a guard in a prisoner-of-war camp. Although he was a nonsmoker, he got free cigarettes which he bartered with an inmate who’d been an engraver. He inscribed four German artillery shells with my dad’s name, serial number, unit, battles he’d fought in, and the name and location of the camp. I still have them.
Dad always said he’d had “a good war” – meaning that he’d survived it. Deaf in one ear (firing a few million rounds does that to you), he still had bits of German grenade metal coming out of his back and neck late in life.
He died at 83, still proud to call himself a “Vimy man.”
— Jim Bunting, Toronto
A stranger came back
Fred Sanders, above, was 18 when he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the summer of 1916, coming home as one of “the lucky ones” three years later. Growing up, all I knew was to be quiet around my grandfather’s brother – the old guy lived in a “home” and suffered from shell shock.
Then I happened upon a box of letters – he’d written to his family every Sunday – in which Fred came to life. My great uncle had left as an arrogant, self-absorbed teenager eager to fight the Germans, and then, as the months went by, been slammed by the reality, the horror.
He and his horse hauled an ammunition wagon for the Canadian 2nd Division through the mud at Passchendaele, then across France and Belgium to occupy Germany. After the war, he enrolled in the Canadian military’s Khaki University in England to upgrade his matriculation. While doing so, he contracted Spanish flu, but managed to survive that as well.
His shell shock was not immediately apparent when he arrived home, but he dropped out of engineering at U of T, and during the summers made a nuisance of himself at his father’s resort, Lakeview House, in Jackson’s Point, Ont.
My grandparents and their parents were very proper and concerned about their reputation – teetotalers, in fact, as my grandmother and great-grandmother were members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. But Fred, introduced to the rum ration at Passchendaele, took comfort in alcohol, with anyone he could find who drank, and caused scenes at the hotel.
In 1932 he was institutionalized, but denied a military disability pension the following year because his dementia was deemed “not attributable to military service.” My family disagreed, and continued to argue that Fred suffered from shell shock, but his application to a soldiers’ hospital in London was also denied.
In 1939, he received shock treatment with an experimental drug (Metrazol), after which he was never the same.
Fred lived to be 89, clearly still suffering from post-traumatic stress – he was paranoid, anxious, obsessed, and had terrifying nightmares. Now my goal is to share his unfortunate story to remind us of what is sacrificed when we send young people off to war – and what happens when they return.
— Sandy Day, Toronto
A magical reunion
My grandparents lived near Rovno, a city in western Ukraine not far from the Polish border, but my grandfather, Adolph Hoffman, lost all contact with his family when he joined the German army.
By 1917, grandma’s possessions consisted of little more than a team of horses and a wagon, which also served as sleeping quarters for her and three sons.
One day, while travelling in a wooded area, they spotted an army camp, and William, my dad, being the oldest, was sent to beg for food. To his utter amazement, he came upon his father chopping wood.
After a joyous reunion, the commander decided it was best for the family to go to Germany, since grandpa’s army stint would not rate any rave reviews in the area after the war.
My father was 17 in 1921 when this photo with his parents and three brothers was taken – that’s him standing on the left. Two years later, he emigrated to Canada to live with an aunt and uncle, intending to bring over the others later because they were destitute. But his mother Tofelia had an eye disease and didn’t pass the medical.
He was never to see them again. Two of his brothers were lost in the Second World War, but a third, taken prisoner in Egypt, eventually returned to Germany, married and raised a family. Also, a sister born in 1927 now lives with her husband in the Black Forest. We have visited them twice.
— Helmut Hoffman, Lethbridge, Alta.
Cars for the Kaiser
My grandfather, Georg Zeitler, was a businessman in Bavaria, and in 1914 his cars were requisitioned by the Kaiser for the war effort. That probably saved his life, as he was able to put his driving skills to good use.
He is seen here at the wheel of, I believe, an Opel. Note the right-hand drive then in use in Germany, and what seems to be a general sitting behind him.
The only thing about that time my grandfather ever mentioned was the fact that he never got his cars back.
— Helmut Erxleben, Oakville, Ont.
Too young (to be a corporal)
John Duncan Jones
Born in Peterborough, Ont., my father was declared medically fit to serve at 15, and 10 days after turning 16 in August, 1915, enlisted with the 8th Canadian Mounted Rifles. His attestation papers suggested that John Duncan Jones (back row centre in the photo) was three years older.
He was shipped out to England that October, reached the front line near Ypres in February. On March 28, 1916, he was “hit by a rifle bullet in the left side, just below the ribs … bones not injured,” according to his casualty report.
His older sister was so upset that she advised the authorities of his true age. As “punishment,” he wasn’t discharged, but instead lost his rank, and had his corporal’s pay cut back to that of a private.
You would think that being wounded would be punishment enough for a 16-year-old boy.
— Brian Jones, Ladner, B.C.
Wounds that won't heal
This photograph shows a concert party of the 11th Durham Light Infantry during a rest period in Picquigny after the Battle of the Somme in 1916. My grandfather Myles Cooper is the one with the swagger stick pointing toward the dark side of the photo. After the war, he died – a victim of post-traumatic stress syndrome – when my father was 8. Dad was raised in an English boarding school, and the subject of my grandfather was a taboo for all.
Last summer, in the wake of my own service in Afghanistan, I googled my grandfather’s name and regiment, and made fortuitous contact with Martin Bashforth, a fellow grandson who was blogging about our grandfathers’ battalion.
Thanks to Mr. Bashforth’s meticulous research, I have been able to read about my grandfather and pinpoint his day-to-day locations in the thick of the fighting over the first week of the 1918 Spring Offensive. His grandfather was killed on the seventh day – at my grandfather’s location.
Getting in touch with Mr. Bashforth, who still lives in the town where our grandfathers signed up, also has helped me wrap up my own demons as a veteran of Afghanistan.
I wonder how the grandchildren of the Canadians who died there will remember both them and those who died by their own hand once they were home.
— Alec Cooper, Quebec City
A family tradition
My grandfather, Albert Nowell, served in England and France as a signaller and was recognized for bravery. Shown here seated on the right, he had taken part in the Boer War with the Worcestershire Regiment before emigrating to Canada and then returning with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
At 33, he was an older recruit, enlisting on Sept. 22, 1914, in Valcartier and continuing a family tradition of military service that began with the Napoleonic war and now spans seven generations.
Our son served in Afghanistan and administers an agency that helps veterans make the transition to civilian life.
— Deborah Nowell, Anmore, B.C.
Lost helping the wounded
Thirty when he joined the 75th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry, my great-uncle Harold Lewis died on Nov. 18, 1916 – the last day of The Battle of Somme – while attending the wounded as a stretcher-bearer. The battle lasted almost four months, and the price was staggeringly high – 24,000 Canadian casualties alone. They filled the pages of newspapers like the one that reported my great-uncle’s disappearance.
There are no letters from him or family photos of him, but on Sept. 11, 2013, my husband and I stood where he and 120 other Canadians who died at the Somme are buried near Arras in northern France.
There was a sense of wonder as I read the inscription on his headstone. I believe one individual can change the world. Harold Lewis died seeking justice and peace – he paid for my lifetime of freedom, opportunity and peace.
— Elaine Snider, Toronto